I’m far from a movie buff, but I’d love to become one. So my strategy, for better or worse, is to watch every Best Picture Oscar winner. A daunting task for someone who hasn't even seen Jaws. To save you a ton of time, I’ll document my adventure here, and we can become movie buffs together.
In the 1960s, four musicals took home the honor of Best Picture. Now I don’t watch too many films in this genre, but I’m going to trust this musical-laden decade and go with a classic that I’ve unintentionally avoided my entire life: The Sound of Music.
The Sound of Music picked up five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Robert Wise), Best Sound Mixing, Best Film Editing (William H Reynolds), and Best Original Score (at the time this award was named something so long and obnoxious I’m omitting it out of protest).
First of all, I know. How could I have never seen this movie? Everyone has! So I’ll be quick with the plot: Nun-in-waiting Maria (Julie Andrews) works as a governess/nanny for a father/tyrant named Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer). The seven children he rules fall in love with her freewheeling spirit. Meanwhile, Maria inexplicably falls in love with Von Trapp, but it’s just in time for the Nazis to force the ol’ captain into the German army. Luckily, the family flees and they live happily ever after, although I’m not sure how many Austrians in 1938 can say that. Oh, and they sing a lot.
Putting aside my amazement that these kids could learn seven part harmonies in 15 minutes, the biggest surprise to me was how famous these songs are. I always thought “Do-Re-Mi” was an elementary school music class lesson. I always thought “My Favorite Things” was a holiday song. “Maria” I recognized from a Seinfeld episode. I’ve definitely heard “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” and “So Long, Farewell” even though can’t quite place when or where. The dialog in the movie is just OK, certainly not on the level of All About Eve or It Happened One Night. But the songs. They’ve clearly been etched in history. Even in 2013, “do” is still a deer. Specifically, a female deer.
I hate to admit it, but the first half hour or so of this movie bordered on unbearable for me. Little bits of sweetness would pop through but mostly I was assaulted with one cheesy, eye-rolling scene after another. The title song and Maria were particularly tough. Any countryside frolicking felt like an over-the-top, majestic parody of itself. It was somewhere around “Do-Re-Mi,” as my finger hovered over the eject button, that I realized something that changed my perspective on the film: This is a Disney movie.
Everyone who loves this movie throws in one not-so-minor detail — they saw it as a kid. And through the lens of childhood I totally get it. There is a demanding parent, sibling shenanigans, an awkward love-dance (looking at you Liesl and Rolfe), a deflated hero who finds her way, and an evil witch known in this film as The Baroness. For this movie, and in childhood, holding hands was going all the way and first kisses were engagement propositions. At no point during the film was I really actually worried about these characters, even when the movie got a little dark. As much as I kind of wanted him to, Rolfe wasn’t going to pull that trigger.
After resetting my outlook, the movie got much sweeter. The songs that felt like musical clichés now felt like the songs that all the other musicals ever are copying. The kids singing “So Long, Farewell” was suddenly adorable. The yodeling, endearing. “My Favorite Things” cemented itself as my favorite song in the movie. And “Edelweiss” is ... well I still don’t totally get “Edelweiss,” but it seems to be really important to these Austrians so I can get behind that.
But the point of this is to see if, in 2013, this movie holds up.
In 2013, The Sound of Music would do well at the box office. It might win Best Original Score, and it could certainly find a permanent place in the hearts of a whole generation. But Best Picture? Not happening. This film competes with Toy Story, not The Departed. The Best Picture winner is a reflection of what we expect out of movies, and we just don’t let warm and fuzzies win Best Picture anymore.
This also begs the question: what made the '60s so ripe for musicals? Was it the good vibrations of the '50s and early '60s? The world before Civil Rights, Vietnam, and the hippies? By 1969, Midnight Cowboy, an x-rated film won. It seems like a whole lot changed between 1965 and 1969.
These days the Academy looks for something different. So far, the only modern musical to win is Chicago. Not exactly wholesome, Disney material. While it might have been a 1960's winner, a film like The Sound of Music today would have only a slightly better chance at Best Picture than, say, Aladdin. It's just too sweet.